The Dayton area will have just one black state legislator in Columbus — down from three in 2010 — marking what local black leaders say is an unfortunate loss of voices in the statehouse.
“It’s important to have representatives who are sensitive to the needs of the community,” said Dayton City Commissioner Jeff Mims. “I think it should concern everyone in our community.”
The total number of black state legislators in Columbus will decline by two to 14 in January with the loss of State Rep. Roland Winburn, D-Harrison Twp., who was unseated by Republican Jeff Rezabek, a Dayton attorney, and the exit of State Sen. Nina Turner, D-Cleveland, who ran unsuccessfully for Ohio Secretary of State. Turner’s seat was won by Democrat Kenny Yoko, who is white.
State Rep. Fred Strahorn, D-Dayton, is the only remaining black state legislator from the Dayton area.
Ohio’s black population is 12.5 percent, and Montgomery County’s is 21 percent, according to 2013 U.S. Census figures.
The 16 black members of the Ohio House and Senate make up 12.1 percent of the 132-person legislature. In January the percentage will drop to 10.6 percent.
“It’s important to have a General Assembly that is balanced,” said Tom Roberts, a former state senator who is political action chairman for the NAACP’s Dayton unit and Ohio Conference.
Roberts said black legislators tend to be closer to their communities and have a better understanding of issues that are important to them — such as poverty or Stand Your Ground laws.
“You don’t get the point of view about how government affects the minority community because you don’t have people there to express that,” said Montgomery County Recorder Willis Blackshear, president of the Dayton-Montgomery County Black Elected Officials.
Winburn said there is value for the average black person to see someone who looks like him or her in the legislature.
“There’s the relationship you have with people who look like you and understand the path they are on,” Winburn said.
Rezabek could not be reached for comment.
Daniel Birdsong, political science lecturer at the University of Dayton, said many of the issues important to blacks are also important to whites.
“I think a white person can represent the issues of African-Americans and an African-American can represent the issues of white Ohioans,” Birdsong said. “People want to have steady income. They want to have a job. They want to have a level of economic security.”
Mike Dittoe, spokesman for the Ohio House Republican Caucus, agreed.
“I’m confident that regardless of race, all legislators will continue to seek input of all of their constituents in each in house,” Dittoe said.
Strahorn, who will be the area’s only black state legislator, was elected to the 39th House seat in 2012 after the Democratic Party picked him to replace former Rep. Clayton Luckie on the ballot. Luckie, who is black, is in prison after being convicted in 2013 on felony counts related to diverting campaign contributions for his own benefit.
Strahorn had been appointed in 2009 to replace Roberts in the Senate, but lost that 5th District seat to Republican Bill Beagle in 2010. Both Beagle and Strahorn were re-elected on Tuesday to their current seats.
State Rep. Alicia Reece, D-Cincinnati, president of the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus, said the group performs an important role.
“It’s about bringing diverse experience to the table that might bring a different thought,” she said.
As an example, Reece said she was on the finance committee reviewing Gov. John Kasich’s proposed state budget when she saw that the minority business office was not funded. She questioned why and it turned out to have been an oversight.
She said another example involves the aftermath of the the police shooting of John Crawford III at the Beavercreek Walmart this summer. She said Kasich asked her about the black community’s view of the incident and she said it remains a top issue for for them. She was able to tell him that she still hears concerns throughout the community, where people are advocating for more training for police and limits on toy guns that look real.
Roberts said blacks won’t get elected if blacks don’t vote. He is disheartened by low voter turnout, arguing that it might be time for civil rights leaders to return to 1960’s-style teach-ins and forums to educate people about the importance of voting.
“Fifty years ago people were murdered, hung, and water-hosed for us (to get) the right to vote,” Roberts said. “And many people today don’t even see the value in it.”